Out of Britain

What demographers have to say about Brexit and why migration research is top of the European agenda

Autor: Andreas Edel

The day could hardly be more ‘typically British’: A rainy morning in Westminster, children in their school uniforms making a racket in the arcades of the Royal College of St. Peter, parliamentary staffers hurrying busily to their workplace with its Neo-Gothic spires stretching up into the grey sky. Tourists snaking their way through the traffic on the unfamiliar left-hand side of the road.

Just two streets further is the Abbey Centre – which not only rents out conference rooms but is also a community hub for people of different social and cultural backgrounds. Quite a few of the centre’s patrons live in vulnerable conditions – in one of the most expensive cities in Europe. Inside the building, young people ask where the cafeteria is, a group of women in headscarves look for their seminar room. Later a group of visiting American students will turn up and join in the event.

This morning, experts are meeting here on the invitation of demographer Jane C. Falkingham to consider what a British exit from the EU would mean from a demographic perspective. Falkingham is Director of the Centre of Population Change at the University of Southampton. The event is being staged in cooperation with Population Europe, the network of top European research institutes in the field of demography whose administration is handled by the Max Planck Society.

In the debate of recent weeks, a much-repeated statement was the assertion that only by leaving the European Union could the United Kingdom escape the mass influx of people who are believed to have an eye on the benefits offered by the British welfare state. Yet the figures calculated by Jane Falkingham and her team tell quite a different story:

  • Only four percent of the population in England and Wales come from another Member State of the European Union.
  • EU-born migrants who live permanently in the UK are generally better educated and more likely to be in employment than the equivalent group of British citizens.
  • Many of them leave the British Isles before they hit retirement, either because they were mainly there to save money and send it back home anyway, having every intention of returning to their native countries from the word go – many being put off by the high cost of living, which they are no longer able to afford on a pension; or because they simply want to live out the twilight of their lives in their home towns and villages on the continent.

As such, when it comes to welfare benefits, most EU migrants in the UK tend to be net contributors rather than net recipients. The fact that British industry would lack workers it urgently needed in the event of a Brexit is only one side of the coin. And there would no longer be enough people working in the service sector, with the result that areas like the healthcare system could find themselves in real trouble. Not to mention the country’s low-paid labour market, a sector often brought up in this context.

The United Kingdom’s break-away from the rest of Europe, according to the British scientists, could also impact many families: bi-national families consisting of one British and one EU-born partner would be plunged into considerable uncertainty by a Brexit, and this could lead them to emigrate or to apply for British citizenship in increased numbers. After all, one third of European migrants are married to a Brit. A similar effect can already be observed in Germany, where local authorities are seeing a big rise in naturalization applications from British citizens as the date of the referendum approaches.

Another month, a different place, only it’s raining more heavily here but the children are in school uniform, too. The European Commission held a ceremony at its Brussels headquarters to mark the inauguration of the second Knowledge Centre in the Commission’s in-house science service, which is going to turn its attention to research and data infrastructure on migration and demographics.

“We don’t know nearly enough about migration”

The personal attendance of the Vice-President of the European Commission along with several European Commissioners and a representative of the Dutch EU Presidency shows how seriously the subject is taken by policymakers.

The acknowledgement that policymakers and society at large don’t know enough about the migrants and have a pressing need for reliable data, methodologically sound research at the cutting edge and corresponding policy information is a common thread running through all the presentations. Because, as Wolfgang Lutz, Director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna, points out, we have not yet begun to take a proper look at the waves of migration that lie in store for us over the coming years, particularly from the African continent.

Back to London. In the course of the panel discussion there two supporters of Brexit take the floor and it turns out that their parents came to the country from Lithuania and Poland after the war to toil in the English coal mines. They themselves are British citizens born and bred. Their arguments may not be well founded, but the emotion with which they express them really hits you, especially when you are aware of their own “migration background”. Their words are reminiscent of what can often be heard at demonstrations on the continent these days.

Even among the high-level politicians who had gathered for the discussion in Brussels, the fears and reservations of the people in Europe are not being ignored, far from it. As a Commission representative noted tongue-in-cheek, he would probably be rather apprehensive if his siblings who live all around Europe suddenly turned up at his comfortable flat in Brussels and wanted to live there. But, as we are hearing time and again, only one thing helps in the face of ignorance and fears – and that is solid scientific information and data which is meaningful enough to find political solutions to a problem that is going to occupy us a lot more intensely in the coming decades than we can imagine today, and on which we must not allow the wrong people to dominate the debate and become the opinion leaders.

In London the rain has stopped, and people of different social and cultural backgrounds sit in the cafés and restaurants along the banks of the Thames, happy to have finished work for the day or enjoying a last beer on the way home, just like they would probably do in Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Rome or Warsaw – if it’s not raining, that is. Now what’s typically British about that?


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